Readjusting to a place once called home

Reverse culture shock: Some students find it tough to go back home


Linh Do at the lakeshore in Oakville. (Photo courtesy of Linh Do)


“It quickly starts to feel like you’re a foreigner in your own home,” Suzyo Suman Bavi says reflecting on his visit home to Zambia, Africa after living in Oakville.

After being away for a long time, returning home can be difficult. Just like moving to a new country, returning home takes readjustment and can result in reverse culture shock.

“Reverse culture shock happens when you go back to your home country or original environment, resulting in an emotional reaction of anxiety or depression,” says Bavi, a counsellor at Sheridan. “You feel low, isolated, lonely, confused, a full mix of emotions.”

Bavi has experienced this first hand.

“Always the first thing that hits you is the jet lag and trying to adjust to the time difference,” says Bavi. “You wake up at odd times and you can’t sleep. It causes you to feel very disoriented, physically, emotionally and psychologically.”

Bavi says that the excitement of being home will often keep the emotions at bay at first and calls this the “honeymoon” phase.

“Once you start getting out, it can start to get hard to make sense of things. Maybe the driving culture is different; possibly the side of the road that people are driving on is different, mannerisms, honking, the amount of people around, it can all hit you,” says Bavi. “It can be a lot to take in in a short period of time.”

First-year Animation student Uriya Jan, 18, says that arriving home to Kazakhstan after living abroad for the year, she noticed cultural differences instantly.

“I got used to English speech everywhere and then when I arrived to the airport, everyone was speaking in their Russian or Kazak language. It felt so different. It even took me some time to recognize my national language,” Jan says. “[I also noticed] everyone was a little ruder than people in Canada, the people in my hometown are loud and they shout.”

Jan says she didn’t consider reverse culture shock when leaving to return home.

“My parents wanted to see me and so I had a reason to go back home. I didn’t think anything about getting used to the culture, it was just about going back to see my family,” she says. “But you have to get used to the different time [zone], the weather, different food.”

Bavi believes reverse culture shock sneaks up on people.

“I think a lot of [students] don’t really put much thought into it. They just pack their bags and they’re just excited to see their families. I think that’s why a lot of them get really hit when they go back because they’re still thinking of their home country the way they left it. What they don’t realize is that things could’ve changed there. They also may not realize that while being [in Canada], they have also changed and have learned a new way of doing things.”

Second-year Animation student Linh Do, 21, has also experienced reverse culture shock when returning to her home in Prague.

She says that when she was on the airplane returning to her home country she felt more like she was leaving her home than going to it.

“When you’re [living abroad] your life is kind of split between two countries,” says Do. “There was a lot of sadness, and alienation and not being able to explain it fully. You’ve made that choice to study abroad and so it’s also a choice as to whether you are going to see those feelings as something that can damage you or to just accept them as a part of you.”

Do says that returning home made her realize how much living abroad had made her grow up and change over the year.

Linh Do posing at the Wenceslas Square in Prague during this part winter break. (Photo courtesy of Linh Do)

Linh Do posing at the Wenceslas Square in Prague during winter break. (Photo courtesy of Linh Do)

“So many things had happened to me, so many changes, but then I came home and nothing really changed, everything was the same and everyone was doing the same thing,” she says. “All the familiar places that you’ve gone to a thousand times when you were a teenager, they’re still all the same but it’s you who has changed, your perspective on everything is completely different.”

Bavi says that it’s not only international students who experience reverse culture shock.

“It can apply to locals too, those students who are coming in from remote areas of rural Canada,” he says. “That same phenomenon of reverse culture shock can occur as long as you’re moving from one culture to another.”

In particular, Bavi helped one student through reverse culture shock when they returned to their home, a small homogeneous community in a remote part of Northern Ontario.

“The weather’s different, it’s much warmer here and colder there, the days are shorter, the food is different and so he became very agitated and got into a lot of arguments with his family,” he says. “At one point he even wanted to cut his vacation short and to come back early.”

Bavi says the student found it difficult to share his experiences from Oakville because he felt that his friends and family no longer understood him.

“He ended up staying longer and as time went on he was able to readjust. He went through the same [process] of the honeymoon period, the depressive period, recovery and then he started to normalize.”

Bavi says that students can help to normalize their surroundings by participating in an activity or eating a food that they enjoyed in the previous country or location. Also he suggests reeducating and preparing yourself before travelling home.

“I usually get in touch with people back home before I go, asking them how the weather is, what’s new and so on. If they tell me, ‘You don’t want to come with anything warm,’ I’ll know to bring a lot of summer clothing. Then when you get there, it’ll be much easier of a transition.”

Bavi says that although the emotions can feel purely negative, there is a positive aspect to the experience.

“For me, I found that in experiencing [reverse culture shock], it makes you appreciate the differences in culture. There’s something wonderful about the differences that we have, they’re all wonderful in their own way.”

Do agrees.

“The journey of studying abroad definitely makes you feel like the entire earth is your home. So even if you feel like an alien [in your home country], remember you’re still walking on the same soil.”